EXCLUSIVE: Relativity Media has signed on for King Of Cocaine, and the long-gestating Brad Furman-directed biopic of Medellin Cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar is finally in shape to start production in Colombia in January. In an intriguing development, John Leguizamo has been set to play the lead role. After watching actors from Oscar Isaac to Benecio Del Toro circle this and other Escobar pics, Leguizamo got the job basically because he refused to take no for an answer, a trait that Escobar could probably relate to if he was still alive.
Leguizamo, who was born in Colombia, has long felt he was born to play the role of Escobar, who rose from poverty to riches as a notorious drug kingpin until his murderous reign ended in a hail of bullets in 1993. How did Leguizamo get the job? Furman made his first film with Leguizamo, The Take, and he has always credited the actor with giving him his directing career. He wanted Leguizamo from the start. But the foreign sales numbers didn’t work. They worked better with actors like Oscar Isaac.
After Inside Llewyn Davis star Isaac dropped out, Leguizamo was once again told no by producer/financier Scott Steindorff, with whom he had just worked in the Jon Favreau-directed Chef. Leguizamo then went out and spent upwards of $15,000 of his own money for a fat suit and prosthetic makeup that rendered him a dead ringer for Escobar at his prime. Leguizamo and Furman filmed a screen test, and got it to Steindorff, who once again said no. Furman fought for it and got the producer to submit it to Relativity execs, without disclosing the identity of the actor. It not only showed him portraying Escobar, it even had a split screen comparison to the actual drug kingpin. Relativity’s Tucker Tooley and Ryan Kavanaugh for the test enough to ask who the actor was. Furman told them, and suddenly they took Leguizamo seriously. He was hired shortly after to star in the $25 million film. If this gives Leguizamo a new identity, it follows a tradition of examples that include the time that Coppola shot Al Pacino from low angle to get him The Godfather lead and did the famous test with Marlon Brando, who stuffed cotton in his cheeks. Or the time that Elijah Wood went Middle Earth for his own screen test and won over Peter Jackson for The Lord Of The Rings.